I am thrilled when my husband and I receive an invitation from friends who have a home in Aspen, asking us to join them and two other couples during the Food & Wine Classic in June. Beyond thrilled. This is an event which brings together chefs from around the world for seminars and cooking demonstrations. I have visions of shmoozing with Bobby Flay, John Besh, Tom Colicchio, Gail Simmons, Mario Batali, Johnny Iuzzini, and assorted Top Cheftestants.
This does not work out for a variety of reasons, and our trip is moved to July during the Aspen Music Festival. Instead of hanging out with celebrity chefs (or at least listening to them speak), we will listen to music and spend our days hiking, biking, and fly fishing. Do these people know that physical exertion and I are not quite on speaking terms? They do, but assure me I’ll be fine.
My traveling companions include a triathlete, a woman who has biked from Los Angeles to San Francisco, another who will leave our trip and embark on a three day hiking /camping trip. These people are serious about the outdoors. Then there is me. Here is the tale of my Aspen vacation.
Day 1: rock climbing. There better be a restaurant at the top. There is not, although damn I am liking my cute new hiking shoes. (yes, these are specifically for hiking. I swear.)
Dinner is at Brunelleschi’s, where we enjoy several varieties of thin crust pizza and salad. I’m especially fond of the basil pesto pizza.
Day 2: three hour hike on the Ute Trail up Aspen Mountain. After an hour I am huffing and puffing from the altitude and the stress on my calf muscles. As I struggle up another steep incline, I finally catch up to the group and smile weakly. “This is for the blog,” I pant.
Dinner is at Restaurant Six89 in nearby Carbondale. They have a three course dinner special for $26.89 that is a terrific bargain. We love the starters, and I am more than happy with my grilled milagro ranch grass fed filet with corn and lobster succotash, onion straws. The rest of the group has fish, which they find somewhat bland.
Day 3: a seven mile bicycle ride. This time we are biking to a restaurant, and it’s a beautiful, mostly downhill ride all the way there. The last time I rode a bike, about two summers ago, it didn’t go so well so I am a little anxious. Woody Creek Tavern is worth the ride, and the views along the way are absolutely breathtaking. I have Caribbean shrimp salad with a delightful sauce of mango, coconut, lime, cilantro and yogurt. It’s a great dish to re-energize me for the ride back. If I was going to ride the bike back. This is a vacation after all, and I don’t see the point of torturing myself with an uphill battle, so I find an alternate means of transportation.
Dinner is a magnificent treat. We have missed the Food & Wine Classic, but thanks to fellow blogger Kosher Like Me I learn that the magazine has left behind a souvenir. Chefs Club by Food & Wine at the beautiful St. Regis Aspen, features a menu developed by four winners of the magazine’s best new chef award. This includes George Mendes of Aldea in NY, James Lewis of Bettola in Birmingham, Alex Seidel of Fruition in Denver, and Sue Zemanick of Gautreau’s in New Orleans. Executive Chef Thomas Riordan contributes to the menu selections as well. The featured chef and menu changes every six months. What a great concept!
I love the feel of the elegant, but not too stuffy, dining room.
I begin with organic Paonia carrot soup with cardamom, kaffir lime, and purple carrot gastrique. The combination of cardamom and lime are perfectly in sync. It’s a delicate but distinctive soup.
My entree – which is selected by several of us at the table- is whole Branzino a la plancha with citrus agrodolce, braised fennel, toasted pignoli, and fried sage. This is one of those “brings tears to my eyes because it is so good” kind of dishes. Like the soup, it is not heavy-handed with the flavors but the freshness and simplicity comes through. I can’t stop eating the plentiful portion.
The menu features four sides. We order one of each. Potato leek puree, wild mushroom risotto, roasted sweet corn, and sugar snap peas. If I have to select a favorite, it would be the corn with lime and cabra blanca cheese. But truly, they are all equally accomplished companions to our entrees.
We can’t decide which desserts to order, so we order four to share. Chocolate malt semi freddo, ricotta cheesecake, caramelized brioche, and crispy zeppole. If these sound at all ordinary it may be because I haven’t described their accompaniments which include picked rhubarb and cranberry chutney on the cheesecake, cinnamon creme fraiche ice cream with the brioche, and honey mascarpone cream and pistachio brittle with the zeppole. We lick the plates clean. There is a pastry chef in our group, and she puts her stamp of approval on this amazing array of sweets.
Chefs Club is an exceptional experience in terms of food, ambiance, and service. This restaurant puts me in a heavenly state of mind, and I don’t think it’s just about the altitude.
Day 4: hike to Maroon Bells and Crater Lake. Our pastry chef friend has made blueberry muffins for us to enjoy at the lake. This is a helpful motivator to get me to the end. Lunch is at Peach’s Corner Cafe. I can’t begin to finish the huge kale salad with chicken, cranberries, roasted root vegetables, and goat cheese. This is a perfect spot for a healthy lunch.
Day 5: fly fishing. No thank you. I skip this activity and enjoy amazingly fluffy oatmeal buttermilk pancakes with blueberries at Poppycocks Cafe. I’m so happy to forgo the fishing pole for a fork. I catch up with the group later at Pine Creek Cookhouse, which has an amazing view in which to enjoy a delicious smoked trout melt sandwich.
(After lunch we take a long walk among the beautiful streets of Aspen, lest you think all I do on day five is eat.)
Dinner is at Takah Sushi where my favorite dishes include pad thai noodles and wasabi mashed potato egg rolls.
Day 6: a final three hour hike at Difficult Creek. This is actually the name of the trail and not my editorial comment. Although for me, a hike up a mountain is always somewhat difficult. A final lunch is at Grateful Deli, a small, appropriately funky sandwich shop on Main Street.
My trip takes me out of my usual box (or restaurant) and puts me in places I didn’t really know I could handle, much less enjoy. I’m used to being elevated by dining experiences on a regular basis. In Aspen, I learned how to scale breathtaking heights on a different level altogether.
Brunelleschi’s, 205 South Mill Street Aspen, Colo.
Restaurant Six89, 689 Main Street, Carbondale, Colo.
Woody Creek Tavern, 2858 Upper River Road, Woody Creek, Colo.
Chefs Club by Food & Wine, 315 East Dean Street, Aspen, Colo.
Peach’s Corner Cafe, 121 S. Galena Street Aspen, Colo.
Poppycocks Cafe, 665 E Cooper Ave, Aspen, Colo.
Pine Creek Cookhouse, Aspen, Colo.
Takah Sushi, 320 S. Mill Street, Aspen, Colo.